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With Larry Ferlazzo

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School & District Management Opinion

‘School Leaders Have 99 Problems, But NAEP Scores Ain’t One’

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 27, 2023 7 min read
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NAEP scores came out last week. How big of a concern should they be to educators?

Not Very Much

Jonathan D. Becker, J.D., Ph.D., is an associate professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. He teaches courses on education law and the politics of education:

To paraphrase the great Jay-Z, school leaders have 99 problems, but NAEP scores ain’t one. Let me explain.

I had the recent good fortune of attending a statewide conference for Virginia secondary school administrators. There, I attended one session where a principal told a story of transformation; multiple elementary schools had merged with a middle school to form a K-8 school. Additionally, the school went all-in on technology integration. They held community events, and previously disengaged families turned out in droves. It was an inspiring story of education reform.

During the Q&A period, one attendee asked the inevitable question about test scores (they had gone up in English and science but not math). I followed up with an inquiry about other outcomes, including attendance and student behavior. The principal noticeably paused before responding and gave me a look that I deserved. Immediately, I wanted to retract the question and hide. Her response was something to the effect of “We are having all of the same challenges that everyone else is. …” It wasn’t a direct response to my question, but it was clear what she was saying. She was sharing the same concern that I heard and saw from many secondary school administrators at the conference.

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While education pundits want to talk about test scores and to relitigate decisions about when schools should have returned to face-to-face learning, those charged with making building-level decisions are focused on much more human and operational challenges.

Those challenges are wicked and multiple. For example, the principal mentioned above said that the first thing she does every morning is to check their HR system to see if they have any applicants for their vacancies. Teachers and staff are leaving, and the number of applicants to fill those positions is dropping. We had “hard-to-staff” schools before now, and those schools are even harder to staff now.

Transportation is another challenge. The winner of the assistant principal of the year award was celebrated for many accomplishments, including that when there was nobody to drive certain routes, he stepped up and drove buses. Similarly, another principal told me about students waiting close to an hour after school because they had to wait for a bus to complete a drop off and double back to take a second group of students home. There just are not enough buses or drivers in some schools and districts.

Getting students home in a timely manner can only be a problem if students come to school in the first place. And this is the challenge that surfaced the most in my conversations. Chronic absenteeism, defined asmissing 10 percent or more of the academic year for any reason, including excused absences, unexcused absences, and suspensions” has been a national problem for a while (predating the pandemic). It has also been part of Virginia’s school accreditation system since 2018 (though its use was suspended during the pandemic).

The issue of chronic absenteeism seemed to surface all throughout my time at the conference. In a session about educational innovation and creativity, participants were asked to form small groups to pick a topic to try to innovate around. One group chose “chronic absenteeism.”

In a session of roundtable discussions, the largest crowds gathered around the table focused on chronic absenteeism. At that roundtable, a leadership team talked about everything they are doing to deal with a nearly 25 percent chronic-absenteeism rate in a small rural community. Among other things, they are obsessively analyzing data in spreadsheets and looking for common themes. They grouped students into a handful of categories. The largest group is not suspended kids or sick kids; it’s the group they refer to as “ABC” (absent but no contact). The students are just not showing up, and the parents are not responding to outreach.

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In other conversations, I heard about home visits. I heard about partnerships with the juvenile-justice system. I heard a lot of frustration and demoralization. These school leaders want to engage in the work of instructional leadership, but that is hard to do when the kids are not coming to school.

There is more to be done to understand why students are choosing to not attend school. Lots of evidence points to the fact that students just don’t like or value school. That has long been true for lots of students. But, like so many other aspects of society, that phenomenon seems to have been exacerbated by the pandemic. And I understand.

More than a million people died from COVID in the last three years in the United States alone. I am confident that we have not fully come to terms with the trauma that has caused. Many K-12 students lost friends and loved ones; they were deprived of joy and lost some innocence. So you can understand why young people might not want to go to a place where they are going to, among other things, be tested, ranked, and sorted. And you might understand why they don’t want to go to a place where they might get shot.

The educational pundit and think tank class likes to talk about NAEP scores and “learning loss,” particularly to be able to confirm their a priori beliefs. Their preferred “solutions” include more school (extended day, summer school, etc.) and “intensive tutoring.” But more school is not a viable solution when the problem is kids not coming to school in the first place.

My friend and colleague, Gary Stager, once wrote: “I intend to dedicate the rest of my days making schools more productive contexts for learning so that each school day may be the best seven hours of a kid’s life.” If each school day was the best seven hours of a kid’s life, they would show up; they would commit to learning. So, what if the pundit and think tank class focused on helping school leaders make that a reality instead of wringing their hands over NAEP scores?

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Thanks to Jon for sharing his thoughts.

The question of the week is:

How big of a concern should NAEP scores be to educators?

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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